Hubberholme to Dent
Updated: Jan 17, 2020
Dales Way – Day 3 – 22 miles
My breakfast neighbours are planning the same leg as me today: the long moorland crossing of the Pennine watershed via Oughtershaw Moss.
It's a few strides over 22 miles, much of it across lonely ground – and with over 3,000ft of ascent it's not a journey to be undertaken lightly.
In a week or so's time even fewer people will be walking it. The baggage carriers – up to 95% of Dales Way walkers are reputed to use one – shut up shop when the clocks go back. With diminished daylight hours far fewer walkers attempt the Way. So the carriers wind down for winter.
The day’s walk is superlative from the off. No dallying with walk-ins or tarmac plodding. Instead it’s a 20-yard stroll to the Wharfe – a bubbling night-time companion – then onto a terrace path flanked by berried thorns and gnarled ash.
This high up Wharfedale the river’s character has changed. It’s a younger river here, not the middle-aged arc that swung gracefully by Bolton Abbey. Instead there’s a playfulness in its tumbles and flows, its weaves and swerves, and, most picturesque of all, its curtained falls over limestone shelves.
Like the river, the riverside path doesn’t rest. Every bluff crested reveals sights anew: field barns – leathes in these parts – atop waterside meadows; hanging woods through which the path picks a careful trod. After handsome Top Farm at Yockenthwaite, with its gracdeful Georgian buildings and fine arched bridge, the valley bottom widens, trees become fewer, and the scrub belt on the craggy skyline falls closer with each joyful mile. Just before Yockenthwaite Cave a crude stone circle, 20 foot across, is a legacy of prehistory: this fine riverside way has been trod for centuries.
Past Beckermonds, where the Dales Way makes unavoidable use of the Hawes road. Colin Speakman’s Dales Way guidebook is apologetic about it (the Dales Way Association still have eyes on riverside access along the final miles of the Wharfe), but the apology’s not needed. On the mile-and-a-bit spent on the road I pass a single family of walkers and no vehicles at all. What’s more, there’s roadside interest around each bend: two water troughs, one in a fine state, restored plaque above labelled ‘V. R. I. 1837–1897’, the next easily lost in the verge, the same stone bowl this time fed by a rock-crack spring, two metal beakers left for horses? – dogs? – walkers? A kindness of strangers.
Oughtershaw – last hamlet of the vallley – is home to two curiosities. The first is a striking, if compact, roadside dwelling, once a school and chapel reportedly designed by that great ploymath of the Victorian Age, John Ruskin, in memory of Lydia Wilson Woodd, the lady of Oughtershaw Hall. It's an unlikely geographical link between this remote Dales valley and, 80 miles or so west, Brantwood.
Almost as unlikely is a red BT phone box, still in working order.
Oughtershaw’s not the end of the road, though. It carries on uphill to distant Hawes.
The Dales Way, meanwhile, heads west, up Langstrothdale to Cam Houses, one of the most remote settlements in the country.
In this bleak upland bowl an ever-changing number of streams thread the bogs that coalesce into Oughtershaw Beck – feeder of the Wharfe that the Dales Way has tracked since Ilkley.
Cradled by Horse Cocklee Fell to the south and Oughtershaw Side to the north, the Moss is the wildest country the Dales Way encounters; a no-man's land marsh miles wide.
But things are changing here. The landowners of Nethergill Farm and even-more-remote Swarthgill Farm are replanting the Moss, thousands of saplings sunk in a landscape-scale rewilding project that has myriad goals; bringing life back to the uplands (the black grouse has returned after a 40-year absence); stabilising sediment and feeder becks; and mitigating downstream flooding.
In 50 years this valley will no longer be the upland desert that George Monbiot frequently rails against; instead it will be a model for what can happen when our landscapes are reimagined to help solve the building ecological problems of our age, showcasing how farming can adapt to an era of climate breakdown, ecological peril and changing dietary habits.
Using these great canvases of rushy not-very-much to restore a more natural balance, to capture carbon, to slow floodwaters and to pump oxygen into the atmosphere seems exactly what taxpayer-funded subsidies should be being spent on. Rather than, say, lining the pockets of megafarm-owning millionaires and burning heather moors so that a handful of green welly-types can drop in at weekends to take wildfowl potshots.
To Cam Houses, the wind-blasted valleyhead settlement that cannot fail to capture the long distance walker's imagination. I first passed it two years back when walking the Pennine Way, which journeys just above the grey-washed buildings on the Cam High Road. I remember looking down at the Houses – on that day wreathed in mist – and thinking that even for me they felt a touch remote.
Dales Way walkers get even closer, the path going through the Houses’ front yard.
Once a farm, then an amalgam of bunk barn and B&B, then a much-loved – and eagerly anticipated – café pitstop in the back-and-beyond, finally on-and-off abandoned, it’s good to see Cam Houses become homes again.
One of the occupiers, a smiling gamekeeper in his 20s, is full of tales about life above the Moss; of snowbound weeks; of coaxing life from high-altitude hawthorns; of rescuing lost walkers from the morrass.
Long may lights burn in this wildest of places.
At Cam Houses the Dales Way walker has a choice. Those splitting the long haul to Dent pick up the Pennine Way southwest to the Blea Moor Road where accommodation is typically saught at Ribblehead. Those heading into Dentdale can take the same route, or they can adopt one of three alternatives opened up by one of the latest stretches of the Pennine Bridleway.
Opened in 2012, the UK’s first national bridleway, which currently runs from Middleton Top in Derbyshire to Street in Cumbria – but which is planned one day to extend to Bryness – was the brainchild of (Lady) Mary Towneley, prolific horse-wanderer and long-time Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire. The Bridleway means those with a horse can now take a 205-mile trot along the Pennine spine. It’s a romantic idea – frontier spirit of the American midwest transported to the soggy damp of the Pennines. Though during the busy few miles the Dales Way spends on it I pass a lot of walkers, a few cyclists, and no horses at all.
Neverthless, the Bridleway over Grove Head, then beyond onto Wold Fell and Dent Fell is superb. The mud of Oughtershaw Moss is left behind as the Bridleway strikes an early rise, up and over the great Pennine watershed that channels rainfall east or west of the country depending which square metre of moor it falls upon, to meet a terrace path that is wide and clear, the going underfoot dry and turfy. This is an old drove road – known locally as Galloway Gate – that felt the footfall of cattle and horses long before tarmac spread along the valley bottoms. (And long after too, for those who could not afford the turnpike tolls.)
The panoramas keep changing north and west – Howgills, Wild Boar Fell, Lake District fells and, at one strategic point, the trinity of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks, lying far distant like ruined forts of once-great kingdoms separated across gulfed battlegrounds, now wreathed in darkening tiers of fast-flowing cloud.
The only price to pay for taking the high road – which is surely the connoisseur’s Dales Way route into Dentdale – is an extra mile or so of road walking down the old Coal Road to Cowgill ('Koogill').
Sure, the views are good, especially of Dentdale – an oasis of green opening below the yellow hillside moorscape – and the occasional train on the iconic Carlisle–Settle line is always welcome, but it’s an ever-steeper toe-bashing descent, and arrival on the valley floor can’t come soon enough.
And so into Dentdale.
I declare an interest here: I consider Dentdale to be the loveliest of all Cumbrian dales. I’d swap Borrowdale (either), Longsleddale, Eskdale, Wasdale… all of them for this perfect meeting of Yorkshire and Lakeland.
This administrative curiosity – a village that is a town; a West Riding valley in Cumbria – feels to me like a time capsule of Lakeland past; an embodiment of what those celebrated landscapes might have looked like 100 years back, when mass tourism, and the questionable drive for commerce now ingrained in the Lake District National Park Authority's DNA, was still a long way in the future.
Far from the madding tourist crowds Dentdale is a secret kept by a handful of repeat visitors who long ago fell under its charms, and its smiling inhabitants, who know they’ve struck it lucky.
The first time I walked here – as part of my Pennine Journey back in May – bluebells studded the banks, lambs jumped in the meadows and swallows played over the Dee. The second time we drove over the tops from Hawes to watch Sedbergh brass band entertain a churchyard full of locals. Both days were magic.
Today the valley has a different feel again. Autumn is deeper set in Dentdale than Wharfedale. The leaves – only hints of yellow and gold across the watershed – are two weeks further into winter here, riverside walkways a slippy mess of mud and leaf litter. Bramble leaves snake hedgeward in ochre and rust. Field hedges are punctuated by thick red clumps of hawthorn berries. A robin on a gatepost awaits the first snows.
The skies here are heavier too; it’s not much past five when I cross Tommy Bridge but it feels like dusk.
When the town of Dent finally emerges above the carefully manicured cricket pitch, its handsome church spire among the stone gables of a cosy collection of cottages, it is no surprise to see woodsmoke from a dozen fires curling up into the grey, like a vision from the days when this fairest of villages rang to the ceaseless song of knitters.
It has been a grand walk, and my lodgings in Dent don't disappoint either; Stone House B&B is wonderful, and their food recommendation, the Sun Inn, is friendly, full of life and the food fabulous.
The day ends with a group of retired Geordie bikers (retired from work, not biking) settling themselves into my corner of the bar and enjoining me to play Chase the Ace. They’re Dentdale regulars of many years' standing who spend their time in the valley “walking round the village and drinking ale”. Which sounds pretty good to me. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of laughter.
The Ace makes it way around the table.
The loser, I am told, buys the next round.
I make my excuses after – thankfully – not quite losing. It is clearly going to be a long night in the Sun Inn.
Yeah, I love Dentdale.